From The American Historical Review, Vol. 109, Issue 1 (February 2004)
Review by Pamela Voekel, University of Georgia
Jacqueline Holler provides a cautionary tale of the perils of generalizing about the entire colonial era from its later centuries. She wants to disabuse us of any notion that convents were peopled by or primarily served New Spain's elite throughout the colonial period, and by adding the largely neglected sixteenth century to the story of religious women she succeeds admirably in this goal. Along the way, she demonstrates that beatas (uncloistered religious women) and nuns contributed to the Spaniards' early spiritual crusade by schooling Indian girls and that convents lent vital sacral weight to Spanish urbanization schemes as Tenochtitlan became Mexico City. She also provides lively examples of religious women's experiences both inside and outside convent walls. Holler's electronic book work easily ranks as the most systematic study of women religious during New Spain's crucial first century.
Clusters of often humble beatas landed in Mexico City soon after the male religious and, with crown support, quickly established cloistered schools to teach native girls the rudiments of the faith and the fundamental tenets of Christian marriage, especially sexual monogamy. The project proved short lived. Missionary priorities soon faced settler hostility in the den of intrigue that was the early colony. Over strenuous crown objections, anxious settlers pushed for convents for their own children, evincing little interest in educating the daughters of an Indian population whose huge numbers threatened their still-fragile project to create a truly Spanish city. Spaniards faced the dilemma that often makes colonial situations so overly wrought: the necessity of clearly delineating themselves from a subject population critical to their economic sustenance. As numerous historians have noted, while Spanish missionaries, settlers, and the crown often clashed over whose agenda would prevail in the New World, Spanish utopias were often aborted or entirely transformed by the natives' own initiatives. Holler gestures toward Nahua parents' reactions to the new schools, arguing against indigenous reticence as the key to the schools' failure and pointing to native precedents for female enclosure. Here she implicitly takes issue with Nancy E. Van Deusen's discovery of the profound depths of Nahua parents' opposition to their daughter's sequestration in Spanish institutions. But whether by dint of Indian or settler resistance or both, by 1544 the schools for Indian girls were foundering. While the Franciscans continued to educate Indian girls, the beatas dispersed, many of them drawn into the more tantalizing orbit of Spanish society. By midcentury, the initial optimism about the Indians' spiritual capacity had waned: Indian boys would not be priests; Indian girls were redefined as sinful, and they would now serve rather than become nuns. In detailing this failed experiment, however, Holler restores women to their rightful place in the early missionary efforts and demonstrates that religious women's experiences in later centuries cannot be taken as representative of the colonial period as a whole.
Despite the crown's belief that female chastity threatened the vital project of populating its new colonies, and despite the friars' interest in a convent to train Indians and mestizas as teachers, by the 1540s it was the settlers' desire to protect family wealth and racial purity and the city council's concern with fixing the boundaries between the Indian and Spanish republics that won out. The honor of Spanish women was a metonym for the honor of the Spanish body politic and a critical mark of the Europeanization of the city. In stark contrast to the later colonial period, the city council rather than individual donors funded the convents established during this 1548 to 1582 period. The good of the Spanish Republic took decisive precedence over the individual donor's soul; not surprisingly, Spanish women both rich and poor professed as nuns. It was only when the Spanish became conscious of the decline of the Indian population that the city council could trust convent foundations to individual patrons' generosity. At the same time, convents began to house only the economic elite, setting a pattern that Holler argues would continue through the colonial period. Here Holler misses an opportunity to spar with other historians, particularly Patricia Seed, who found the sexual honor of all women to be a widely shared social value well into the eighteenth century. Holler's work implies a fascinating and precocious stratification within settler society based on wealth rather than honor.
Nuns, female missionaries, Indian education under female auspices, and staunch city council support for convents: all of these place the sixteenth century outside the general colonial experience of female monasticism. To these considerable findings Holler adds a discussion of another classic colonial flash point: the struggles for control of female religiosity among the regular and secular clergy and the women themselves. In perhaps the book's most dramatic sequence, Holler details a 1565 intrigue between the bishop and the Franciscans for jurisdictional control over a group of nuns and whether to locate their convent in the city center or in a Franciscan-controlled outlying Indian barrio. A huge crowd of two to eight thousand Indians greeted the women after the Franciscans whisked them through the city by night to the outlying parish; when the secular authorities stormed the church, they were met by dagger-wielding nuns who pelted them with rocks, as well as by the aging but still formidable Frey Jerónimo de Mendieta. To this example of female agency, Holler adds stories of nuns and beatas drawn from Inquisition casescases that illustrate the considerable spiritual brokerage these women wielded both inside and outside of convent walls. Whereas Kathryn Burns demonstrates that Cuzco's nuns parlayed their considerable capital into influence over the settlers' land and labor dealings with the Indians, Holler's Inquisition cases and the letters and petitions she consulted in Seville provide key information on religious women's spiritual influence in Mexico City.
There are both a forest and trees here, but undergraduates might find hacking through the dense empirical underbrush too exhausting. The author missed several opportunities to link her work with that of historians of larger colonial themes. Furthermore, after laying out her argument in the introduction, Holler breaks her pace with that classic mark of a dissertation: the overview of the extant literature, in this case that on nuns. But containing as it does the most complete discussion of female religious experience in sixteenth-century Mexico City, this electronic book is indispensable reading for historians of New Spain and for scholars concerned with female religious in the Spanish Empire.